Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 21, 2009

Sociobiology in the Nation Magazine

Filed under: evolutionary psychology — louisproyect @ 7:10 pm

(I recalled that I had written about sociobiology in the Nation Magazine some years ago before I began blogging. In light of what I have been writing about the Yanomami science wars and to complement an excellent review of “André Pichot’s The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler” on Lenin’s Tomb, I thought it would be appropriate to recycle them now.)

Barbara Ehrenreich on war

(I do not know when this was posted)

I guess I have gotten used to how bad the Nation magazine has become, but every once in a while I run into something so rancid that I have to pause and catch my breath. This was the case with a review by DSA leader Barbara Ehrenreich of 3 books on war. This review was accompanied by a review by Susan Faludi of Ehrenreich’s new book on war titled “Blood Rites”. All this prose is dedicated to the proposition that large-scale killing has been around as long as homo sapiens has been around and that it has nothing much to do with economic motives. Looking for an explanation why George Bush made war on Iraq? It wasn’t over oil, “democratic socialist” Ehrenreich would argue. It was instead related to the fact that we were once “preyed upon by animals that were initially far more skillful hunters than ourselves. In particular, the sacralization of war is not the project of a self-confident predator…but that of a creature which has learned only ‘recently,’ in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night.”

In a rather silly exercise in cultural criticism, Ehrenreich speculates that the popularity of those nature shows depicting one animal attacking and eating another are proof of the predatory disposition we brutish human beings share. I myself have a different interpretation for what its worth. I believe that PBS sponsors all this stuff because of the rampant oil company sponsorship that transmits coded Social Darwinist ideology. Just as the leopard is meant to eat the antelope, so is Shell Oil meant to kill Nigerians who stand in the way of progress.

One of the books that Ehrenreich reviews is “War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage” by Lawrence Keeley. Keeley argues that material scarcity does not explain warfare among Stone Age people. It is instead something in our “shared psychology” that attracts us to war. Keeley finds brutish behavior everywhere and at all times, including among the American Indian. If the number of casualties produced by wars among the Plains Indians was proportional to the population of European nations during the World Wars, then the casualty rates would have been more like 2 billion rather than the tens of millions that obtained. Ehrenreich swoons over Keeley’s book that was published in 1996 to what seems like “insufficient acclaim”.

I suspect that Keeley’s book functions ideologically like some of the recent scholarship that attempts to show that Incas, Aztecs and Spaniards were all equally bad. They all had kingdoms. They all had slaves. They all despoiled the environment. Ad nauseum. It is always a specious practice to project into precapitalist societies the sort of dynamic that occurs under capitalism. For one thing, it is almost impossible to understand these societies without violating some sort of Heisenberg law of anthropology. The historiography of the North American and Latin American Indian societies is mediated by the interaction of the invading society with the invaded. The “view” is rarely impartial. Capitalism began to influence and overturn precapitalist class relations hundreds of years ago, so a laboratory presentation of what Aztec society looked like prior to the Conquistadores is impossible. Furthermore, it is regrettable that Ehrenreich herself is seduced by this methodology since she doesn’t even question Keeley’s claims about the Plains Indian wars. When did these wars occur? Obviously long after the railroads and buffalo hunters had become a fact of North American life.

The reason all this stuff seems so poisonous is that it makes a political statement that war can not be eliminated through the introduction of socialism or political action. For Ehrenreich, opposing war is a psychological project rather than a political project:

Any anti-war movement that targets only the human agents of war — a warrior elite or, on our own time, the chieftains of the ‘military-industrial complex’ – risks mimicking those it seeks to overcome … So it is a giant step from hating the warriors to hating the war, and an even greater step to deciding that the ‘enemy’ is the abstract institution of war, which maintains its grip on us even in the interludes we know as peace.

Really? The abstract institution of war maintains its grip on “us”? Who exactly is this “us”? Is it the average working person who struggles to make ends meet? Do they sit at home at night like great cats fantasizing about biting the throats out of Rwandans or Zaireans in order to feast on their innards? The NY Times has been reporting more and more concern among Clinton administration officials about Kabila’s drive toward the overthrow of Mobutu, our erstwhile puppet. It is not out of the question that Clinton and his European allies would put together an expeditionary force to protect “democracy” in Africa. Who would be responsible for this war? The ruling class or the poor foot soldiers who get drummed into action?

Sociobiology in the Nation Magazine

posted to http://www.marxmail.org on Nov. 4, 2002

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to get a trial subscription to the Nation Magazine. What the hell, I said. This would give me a chance to see what the red-baiters were up to first-hand, as well as work on their nifty crossword puzzles. When my last subscription was winding down during the beginning of Clinton’s second term, the puzzles and Cockburn’s column were the only things that kept me going. When they cut Cockburn back to one page and then went into a full-tilt boogie for Clinton, I said to hell with them.

When I got my first complementary copy this morning, I was reminded why I let this awful magazine lapse. Starting out with an editorial admonition to its readers against wasting a vote for the Green Party in tomorrow’s elections, it then proceeds to a defense of sociobiology of a kind that I’ve never seen in a left publication.

In Steven Johnson’s review of Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate”, we discover that E.O. Wilson, Stephen Pinker and Richard Dawkins were right all along. Biology is destiny. Women’s brains differ from men’s, hence accounting possibly for men’s superiority in theoretical physics among other things. (Don’t worry, gals, your brains might just as easily prepare you for “social interactions” and “empathy”.)

While reading through this crapola, one gets no sense of what Pinker stands for politically. Johnson assures us that Pinker presents his views on the political and social implications of neo-Darwinism with his characteristic “eloquence” and “humor” but one would get no sense from the review what ideas this humor and eloquence is actually mustered to support.

Let’s look at a few of them:

  • Males have a stronger tolerance for physical risk and a stronger drive for anonymous sex.
  • Women have stronger emotions and are better at reading emotions on the faces of others.
  • Pinker states “A variety of sexual motives, including taste in men, vary with the menstrual cycle.”
  • He also states that “in a sample of mathematically talented students, boys outnumbered girls by 13 to one” but that women maintain more eye-contact, and smile and laugh more often.
  • Humans are hard-wired to think in stereotypes and to prefer kin.
  • Some people, most of them men, are born with criminal tendencies.
  • Turning to the big questions of social transformation that have vexed Great Thinkers for the millennium, we learn from Pinker that “Biological facts are beginning to box in plausible political philosophies.” Communism may work for insects, but humans are programmed for economic exchange and “reciprocal altruism.” (Is that the reason I used to climb across the ceilings and consume a pound of sugar at a time when I was in the Trotskyist movement, I wonder?)

When you stop and think about it, the title of Pinker’s book sets up a straw man, namely that radicals of one sort or another believe that the mind is a “blank slate” and that human nature is infinitely malleable.

It is of no small importance that Pinker ultimately finds backing in Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories, mediated through anthropologist Donald Brown who adapted Chomsky’s idea of a “universal grammar” to “social patterns, beliefs and categories” shared by all human societies. We discover that Pinker (and presumably the feckless reviewer) are so impressed by Brown that he devotes an entire appendix to such categories worked out in alphabetical order. The c’s include cooking, cooperation, and copulation (all of my favorite activities, it turns out.)

With such basic activities underpinning all human societies, and human nature implicitly, one might easily conclude that it is risky business to tamper with the eternal nature of things, like sending your daughter to MIT. You might end up with Pol Pot, Stalin, the Animal Farm or women running around burning their bras. Pinker quotes Chomsky just to show that this kind of hostility to revolution has respectable defenders:

A vision of a future social order is based on a concept of human nature. If, in fact, man is an indefinitely malleable, completely plastic being, with no innate structures of mind and no intrinsic needs of a cultural or social character, then he is a fit subject for the ‘shaping of behavior’ by the State authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee. Those with some confidence in the human species will hope this is not so and will try to determine the intrinsic characteristics that provide the framework for intellectual development, the growth of moral consciousness, cultural achievement and participation in a free community.

While respect must be paid to Chomsky for his fearless critique of US foreign policy, it would be a big mistake to write a blank check for his ideas on human nature, etc. As his biographer Robert Barsky has pointed out, many of Chomsky’s ideas on human nature and society owe much more to 18th century rationalism than any more recent emancipatory philosophies, including Marxism. Indeed, what permeates much of sociobiology and Chomsky on his worst days is a kind of Hobbesian skepticism about the human animal, who would need to be restrained from wanton violence, rape and warfare by a protective state.

For all of Pinker’s animosity to radicalism and Marxism in particular, there is very little evidence that he understands how historical materialism deals with the question of human nature. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace its development through the years, suffice it to say that Marxism views the nature-nurture relationship dialectically.

It does not really challenge the existence of biologically determined traits, but simply places the whole question of equality, justice and freedom in a materialist context. In other words, revolutionary socialism strives to create the conditions in which all human beings can reach their full potential. Within the context of such a challenge, Pinker’s “Blank Slate,” with its discussions about the difference between the appearance of male and female brains (according to Pinker, they are “nearly as distinct as their bodies”) seems little more than “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” geared to readers of the New York Review of Books.


  1. Haven’t read your piece yet, so I can’t comment, but Barbara Ehrenreich is just an “honorary chair” same as Cornel West and some of DSA’s other more prominent members. I wouldn’t characterize her as a DSA leader as she has no role on the National Political Committee (to my knowledge).

    Comment by Bhaskar — July 21, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

  2. Pinker’s “Blank Slate” is trash. I don’t understand his status as an intellectual.

    I canceled my Nation subscription after their blind support for Obama became intolerable.

    Humans are pack hunters to this day. We have incisors with which to tear flesh. War has always had a material basis whether justified by the proto-nation church, or nation, or gang. All else is just selling it. The human animal needs little provocation to engage in violence. When you take away what one needs to live you are then taking away life. This species, for the most part, cannot look away from fictional violence on their video screens. American football is ritualized warfare that evolves into more warfare than ritual and yet is perceived as only entertainment.

    Trivers writes about the Christmas Truce in 1914. His emphasis is on deception and self-deception. The reluctance to fight and possibly die is an ever presence. This argues against the large scale killing of modern warfare as man’s nature. This individual reluctance to fight is usually overcome by training by ruling class agents.

    None of this is inconsistent with selfish gene theory. The elders (sociopaths) of the species seem to find it easy to convince the young of the necessity and glory of war in generation after generation while managing to engineer conflicts not lacking participants.

    The last time I looked men and women were different. The fiction of the Blank Slate doesn’t describe the observed frequency of sexually distinct traits. Larry Summers’ argument attempts to make a rule of the observed as if it were a natural law giving him authority to act in the stead of nature in enforcement. Fewer women are engineers. But there exist women who are better engineers than are many men. Same goes for race car drivers.

    Women are raped with high frequency in war even when they are in the same army as the men they are raped by. This is a failure to control the murder and rape tendencies aroused by training in the service of ideology, i.e., the sales job.

    So, is a world without war possible? Maybe, if the democracy can distinguish its own interests from that of its most ruthless sociopathic oligarchs and become co-owners of their own government. Some nations that have had multiple revolutions seem to have worked out better relations with their governments. This to the extent of which they have stopped it from extorting and murdering them through the withholding of health care for profit.

    Comment by Glenn — July 21, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

  3. Not to defend The Nation or anything, but I think you’re misreading the Chomsky quotation, and giving too much credence to Pinker, who I think has also misread it (but I haven’t looked at the context in The Blank Slate). It comes from Chomsky’s attack on Skinner and Herrnstein, “Psychology and Ideology” in For Reasons of State, and it’s a reductio ad absurdum. He is not endorsing “the ’shaping of behavior’ by the State authority, the corporate manager, the technocrat, or the central committee.” I think that much ought to be clear even from the snippet quoted here.

    And this — “Indeed, what permeates much of sociobiology and Chomsky on his worst days is a kind of Hobbesian skepticism about the human animal, who would need to be restrained from wanton violence, rape and warfare by a protective state” — is not only nonsense but a malign misrepresentation of Chomsky, apparently based on your and Pinker’s misreading of that passage from “Politics and Ideology.” If anything, like most anarchists Chomsky has been accused of having too sunny a view of “the human animal.”

    Comment by Duncan — July 22, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

  4. I had to smile at the part about people “born with criminal tendencies.”

    The last Criminology textbook I read (late 80s) had a chapter on how Marxists view crime. That was a big step forward for most sociology texts.

    Nevertheless in the end the text concluded that there has “never been any sociologically significant correlation between unemployment & crime.”

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 23, 2009 @ 12:46 am

  5. So for Chagnon this is the best way to understand the Yanomami. If this seems far-fetched, it must be understood that this is the core belief of sociobiology that finds expression in Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee” (i.e., homo sapiens). Like Chagon who he acknowledges, Diamond views warfare as rooted in our genes—or perhaps man’s need to spread his genes.


    Or in a previous “generation” , _The Naked Ape_


    Comment by Charles — September 9, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

  6. Humans are pack hunters to this day. We have incisors with which to tear flesh. War has always had a material basis whether justified by the proto-nation church, or nation, or gang. All else is just selling it.

    CB: Hunting is use of violence against other species for food. War is use of violence against our own species, not for food. So, whatever instinctive inclination to use violence to hunt for food is not what underlies war.

    The human animal needs little provocation to engage in violence. When you take away what one needs to live you are then taking away life. This species, for the most part, cannot look away from fictional violence on their video screens. American football is ritualized warfare that evolves into more warfare than ritual and yet is perceived as only entertainment.

    Comment by Charles — September 9, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

  7. […] the time I questioned the wisdom of such a […]

    Pingback by Steven Pinker = Hobbes + Pangloss « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — October 4, 2011 @ 7:54 pm

  8. […] leaders to guide planning groups. She objected that several of those religious leaders were war criminals who should be tried for their actions—not national heroes to influence the new […]

    Pingback by Get out of Afghanistan, Afghan feminist says | Dear Kitty. Some blog — June 5, 2012 @ 11:14 pm

  9. Charles, while cannabalism may have rarely been the cause for war in human history, food, or more rather access to food resources, most certainly has. I have never heard of a war within the grand pantheon of the human experience that did not have some other alterior motive beyond or besides some simplistic notion of a human drive to wage war to show dominance, or for war’s sake. This alterior motive always seems to derive from one side’s ruling class (or both), and to principally their own benefit.

    Forgive me if I misunderstood your comment, but that seemed to be the gist to me.

    Comment by Steven Harris — January 2, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

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